BEETHOVEN: PIANO SONATA NO.23; SCARLATTI
Larry Barnes, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninov, Domenico Scarlatti
GREGORY PARTAIN, piano
REVIEWS"[In the Barnes] Partain includes implied anger in the more outgoing moments while invoking real tenderness in the quieter moments. "
Fanfare - May / June 2008
"...some of the best Scarlatti I've ever heard...13 minutes of stunning playing - crisp, clear, articulated, and phrased. There is balance and rhythmic vitality in every measure. Dare I say it, these approach the same level as Horowitz's legendary recordings...I enjoy Partain's performance very much [of the Brahms Variations]...I enjoyed a performance [of the Appassionata] that fully realizes the quote ["strong, intelligent, unshowy pianism'] "
American Record Guide - November / December 2007
"[Partain's] playing on this varied program...is superb. Highly recommended. "
CD HotList for Libraries - February 2008
"...suave and comfortable performances of three Rachmaninoff Preludes. He handles the B-flat's tumultuous left-hand figurations with ease and, in the polytextural central section, prepares an unusually protracted and supremely controlled ritard...a lively, vivacious [Scarlatti] A major sonata...Partain [has] superior fingerwork throughout Beethoven's Appassionata...[In the Brahms, the] tempo relationships and transition emerge in a seamless, cumulative arc. Appropriately, Partain's tone fills out and opens up: notice how he achieves a beautiful legato phrasing through fingers alone, scarcely touching the sustain pedal."
Gramophone - December 2007
"Gregory Partain is a gifted pianist, and every item is intelligently and sympathetically played. Partain's strengths show to best advantage in the group of Scarlatti Sonatas, especially the beautifully judged account of the pensive F minor, and in a thoughtful, sensitively shaped and expressive rendition of Brahms' rarely heard Original Theme variations, to which Partain imparts a cumulative power I have seldom heard brought out to such vivid effect. The recording is good." [Performance: 4 of 5 stars]
BBC Music Magazine - November 2007
"...this recital shows off the smooth talents of Gregory Partain [who] opens with a small but elegant Rachmaninov group...He keeps a heady, flexible tension...played to perfection. Partain imbues it with intelligent lyricism and light, gossamer colors. I like Partain’s Scarlatti - the D Major Sonata, K. 96 enjoys lithe and optimistic energies, plastic repeated notes that do not degenerate into typewriter mechanics. Huge block chords and otherwise muddy harmonies [in Variations on an Original Theme of Brahms] become lucid and songful under Partain’s sympathetic fingers. Partain moves this often stodgy, consciously pedagogical work forward, savoring the Brahms penchant for overlapping or contrary motives. Larry Barnes is a colleague of Partain, and his 2002 Toccata captures a ferocious aggression that we know from Bartok, here cross-fertilized by the events of September 11, 2001. [In his Beethoven] the theme and variations reap the benefits of Partain’s nobly plastic realization, and the Allegro ma non troppo’s otherwise blistering sensibilities even find moments of repose. A thoughtful, controlled demonstration of fluent keyboard artistry, this disc."
Audiophile Audition - October 2007
"With a program containing works spanning more than three centuries, Gregory Partain demonstrates his ability to shift rapidly and deftly between greatly differing compositional styles. [In the] Rachmaninov preludes...Partain's exemplary skills in voicing the dense compositions [are demonstrated]. The melody clearly rises above the harmony and accompanimental figures almost as if it was being sung. Inner voices are remarkably well-articulated and there's no trace of over-pedaling. [In the] three sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti...Partain effortlessly shifts from the lush, emotive Rachmaninov to the crisp, energetic, and elegant figures of the Baroque. The A major Sonata contains passages of repeated notes that are executed with almost impossible speed and precision. Mixing something new with the standard repertoire, Partain performs the Toccata: Act of War, composed for him by Larry Barnes. The rhythmic drive and intensity leave listeners wishing the piece were longer than its mere six minutes, or that Partain included more works by his colleague. The album culminates with a very satisfying rendition of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata. All of his aforementioned attributes come together here — brilliant clarity, crisp articulation, and a magnificent sense of pacing... this album is an excellent introduction to an artist whose career should be watched with anticipation."
All Music Guide - October 2007
"This is my kind of pianism: strong, intelligent, unshowy, authoritative and deeply satisfying"
PROGRAM NOTESIn his 20 years on the concert stage, Gregory Partain has appeared as recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist throughout the United States, and has performed overseas in Russia, Poland, Greece, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Recent concerto appearances include performances with the orchestras of Athens, Greece and Yaroslavl, Russia. Prior to these engagements, Partain appeared with the Seattle Symphony, Eugene Oregon Symphony, and Sunriver and Peter Britt summer festivals, performing concerti by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Gorecki. Recent projects include a three-evening concert-lecture series on the last five piano sonatas of Beethoven and the release of his debut solo album (Volume I) containing works by William Byrd, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Ravel. Partain turned serious interest to composition in 1998 with the premier of Two Songs for Harp and Soprano on Poems of William Butler Yeats and his choral piece Lux aeterna received its first performance the following year. In 2003 he premiered Come to the Garden in Spring: Seven Songs of Earthly and Spiritual Love, a song cycle for soprano and piano on the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th-century Islamic mystic. As the Kentucky Music Teachers Association Commissioned Composer for 2005, he composed a nine-movement concert Requiem for a cappella choir, based on traditional Latin texts. Partain received his B.M. in piano performance at the University of Washington, and M.M. and D.M.A degrees from The University of Texas at Austin as a Javits Fellowship recipient. A frequent adjudicator and master class teacher, Partain is Professor of Music and Fine Arts Division Chair at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he holds a Bingham Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching.
* * *
A virtuoso pianist of the first order, Rachmaninov elicited awe and admiration from all who heard him. Unsurprisingly, his compositional craft closely paralleled his art as a performer. In both spheres he aimed straight for the heart, displaying consummate musicianship, a gripping sense of drama, daring pyrotechnics, an instinctive ear for pianistic and emotional coloration, a penchant for rhapsodic flights of imagination, and superb control over psychological architecture. Rachmaninov felt that every piece contained one climactic "point" upon which the entire structure depended. An acquaintance explained, "This culmination may be at the end or in the middle; it may be loud or quiet, but the performer must know how to approach it with absolute calculation, absolute exactness, because if it slips, the whole structure goes to pieces."
Composed between 1899 and 1910, the twenty-three preludes of Opp.23 and 32 offer independent microcosms of sound and feeling, each one a quintessential testament to Rachmaninov's art. He often included preludes on his own recitals, arranging them in small groups. Judging from the frequency of their performance, the three on this disk were among his half dozen favorites, with the evocative meditation in G major particularly privileged.
A core narrative hovers in our collective imagination for each composer enshrined within the received pantheon of musical greats. Inevitably, perhaps necessarily, these stories infuse our listening with accumulated layers of association and meaning. The Rachmaninov narrative is rooted in his wrenching departure from revolution-ravaged Russia at the age of forty-four; he would spend the next quarter century yearning to return to his beloved homeland. Obviously, there was more to the man than this, and more to his music, yet will any present-day listener fail to hear Rachmaninov's Russian accent in the preludes, or fail to share his heartache—despite his having conceived these pieces well before quitting the country in 1917?!
Only sublime celestial synchronism could account for the birth, in 1685, of no less than three remarkable musical luminaries: J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti. Like his illustrious colleagues, Scarlatti embodied the Baroque ideal of composer-as-craftsman, concerned primarily with producing what was necessary and appropriate for the occasion at hand. The "occasion" motivating his supreme creative achievement was a thirty-seven-year employment as royal music master to Maria Barbara, Princess of Portugal then Queen of Spain--a post he held c.1720 until his death. Under his tutelage, she became an accomplished harpsichord player in her own right, with an insatiable appetite for new works. He happily obliged, churning out around 550 single-movement sonatas for her edification and enjoyment. Though these sonatas will never command the reverence of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier or Beethoven's 32 sonatas (the so-called "Old" and "New Testaments" of the repertoire), pianists have found them delightfully transferable to the sound, touch, and aesthetic of the modern pianoforte. The 550 firmly establish Scarlatti as among the finest, most original keyboard composers in history.
In the 1738 preface to his first published collection, Scarlatti warned, "Don't expect, whether you are an amateur or a professional, to find any profound intention in these compositions, but rather an ingenious jesting with Art by means of which you may attain freedom in harpsichord playing." Though not included in that published set, the D major and A major sonatas on this disk exemplify the carefree, devil-may-care attitude one might expect from the composer's admonition. For sheer finger fun, rhythmic vitality, and freshness of invention, these capricious romps know few peers. Familiar Scarlattian devices include hunting calls, rapid repeated notes and passagework, and treacherous hand crossings with wide leaps that present what renowned Scarlatti specialist Ralph Kirkpatrick once likened to "the glorious dangers of the trapeze artist." But these two sonatas and Scarlatti's unassuming description belie the impressive array of moods and sentiments to be found elsewhere among the 550. To wit, the introspective sonata in F minor, written toward the end of Scarlatti's life, eschews acrobatics entirely, reaching across the centuries with poignant restraint and dignity. Its creator might well have found his music's long-lived appeal to posterity a bit quizzical.
The essential Brahms narrative begins in 1853 with the twenty-year-old, portfolio in hand, anxiously presenting himself to the venerable Robert and Clara Schumann. Keen judges of talent and generous supporters of anyone possessed by the Romantic spirit, they instantly adored the sincere and brilliant Brahms. With effusive public praise, Robert anointed him into the fold, proclaiming him the young genius "fated to give us the ideal expression of the times," with "all the marks of one who has received a call."
Scarcely five months following this heady time, Schumann attempted suicide by drowning, then languished in a sanatorium the remaining two-and-a-half years of his life, separated from Clara until his final days. This protracted tragedy exacted considerable emotional toll on Brahms, in no small measure because he fell deeply in love with Clara, fourteen years his senior, while assuming the role of male protector for her and her children. He declared in spring of 1856, "My beloved Clara, I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you. . . You are so infinitely dear to me that I can't begin to tell you. I constantly want to call you darling and all kinds of other things, without becoming tired of adoring you." She reciprocated in a fashion, but their mutual love and admiration was fraught with qualifications and complicated by their utter devotion to Robert. A few weeks after writing so openly to Clara, Brahms sadly reported Schumann's death to a friend, confiding, "Surely I will never again experience anything as moving as the reunion of Robert and Clara." While helping organize Schumann's papers, he added, "Being in touch with him in this way, one learns to love and honor the man more deeply with each day."
Though not officially premiered until 1860 (by Clara) and not published until 1862, Brahms composed Variations on an Original Theme during the difficult period just preceding and/or following Schumann's death. Whatever the maelstrom of emotions swirling about at this troubled time, Brahms maintained his ability to surmount artistic challenges. The problem of variation form held special fascination, and we find clues to his thinking in a letter to the violinist-composer Joachim: "I occasionally reflect on variation form and find that it must be kept stricter, purer. The old composers retained the bass of the theme, the actual theme, strongly throughout. In Beethoven, melody, harmony and rhythm are so beautifully varied." Certainly, Variations on an Original Theme reflects Brahms's desire to follow a "stricter, purer" approach. Rather than adhering to the theme's melody throughout the variations, he emphasized its phrase structure and two-part layout as the crucial unifying elements. Together, these become the dominant organizing principle of the work. Like the theme, variations 1-10 repeat both their halves exactly. With the eleventh variation, which features a sustained trill recalling late Beethoven, the musical discourse begins to transcend its structural moorings, becoming almost visionary. There will be no more repeats, no more looking back, since this final variation comprises two variations in one. The piece then slides gently into a substantial coda, wherein Rachmaninov would have found his "point!" The inspired last gestures soar through ecstatic culminations to resolve, finally, in calm affirmation.
Soon after Brahms received Schumann's enthusiastic public endorsement, he visited Leipzig to make the rounds. A local aristocrat recalled in his diary an unusually noteworthy musicale: "There he sat before me, Schumann's young Messiah, fair and delicate; though only in his twentieth year, his face showed the triumph of his spirit. Purity, innocence, naturalness, power, and depth—this describes his character." Undeniably, these descriptors also capture something of the spirit of the Variations on an Original Theme.
Composer and pianist Larry Barnes currently serves as Professor of Music and Bingham Fellow for Excellence in Teaching at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Festivals and concert series throughout the United States and Europe have performed his music. His Solar Winds won the Cleveland Orchestra Composition Prize and Morning Gigue has been recorded by the Slovak Radio Symphony and released on compact disc by MMC Recordings. Commissions include music for Bertram Turetzky, Cincinnati Composers' Guild, Kentucky Music Teachers Association, and many others. The recipient of a NEA Composer Fellowship, two Kentucky Arts Council awards, and the Howard Hanson Prize, Barnes has recently toured Ireland, China, and Costa Rica as part of his study of world music. His music is published by Southern, Brazinmusicanta, and SEE-SAW Music Corporations.
"I composed Toccata: Act of War for my colleague, Gregory Partain. When I began writing the piece in early 2001, its title was intended solely as a metaphor for the explosive nature of the music. Of course, both title and music took on a new meaning after the nation was plunged into vulnerability on September 11. I completed the work in 2002. Toccata is passionate, barbaric, moody, and impulsive. Bursting with anger, its pent-up rage is only briefly interrupted by moments of lyricism. The moto perpetuo concept of the toccata genre is present in an obsessive little motive at the outset, to be played 'with quiet momentum, in the manner of a stealth missile.' This motive reveals itself throughout the fast sections in numerous ways, some nervous, some subtle, but mostly blunt and undisguised. The brief central 'core' is a respite from this turmoil, but it cannot last, just as the realization of a world changed forever by the tragedies of that day cannot be erased." (L.B.)
"For nearly two centuries, a single style of a single composer has epitomized musical vitality, becoming the paradigm of Western compositional logic and of all the positive virtues that music can embody for humanity. . . The values of Beethoven's heroic style have become the values of music" (Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero). For pianists, the Op. 57 sonata stands at the pinnacle of the select handful of Beethoven's works that properly qualify as "heroic," in all senses of that word. Aptly nicknamed by a publisher, the "Appassionata" exudes unprecedented emotional intensity. Unabashed violence abounds, with virtuosic outbursts that tax the instrument and player to their limits juxtaposed with calmer passages, brooding ruminations, even moments of serenity. On its surface, then, the sonata captures perfectly the mythic image of Beethoven as Hero—the half-mad, wild-haired individualist hell bent on "seizing fate by the throat." As Burnham's assessment indicates, however, Beethoven's musical "heroism" entails more than rage-driven resistance to the will of the gods. No matter how irresistible, intoxicating, overwhelming, or admirable one may find the music's attitude of willful defiance, a more complete understanding of Beethoven's aesthetic requires us to acknowledge equally important, complementary aspects.
Indeed, generations of listeners have responded to a fundamental paradox in Op.57, for in the midst of its turbulence and fierce Dionysian energy, we sense always an inevitable musical logic binding all together, if only barely. The sonata invites us to experience vividly the polarity between two elemental forces: the impulse to tear asunder and the impulse to hold in check. Beethoven wanted us to see the wild animal thrashing out through the bars of its cage. Perhaps no other musical composition explores and sustains this tension so explicitly, on so many levels, nor on such a monumental scale.
PROGRAMSergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Prelude in B-flat major, Op.23, No.2
Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op.32, No.12
Prelude in G major, Op.32, No.5
Domenico Scarlatti (1650-1757)
Sonata in D major, K.96
Sonata in F minor, K.481
Sonata in A major, K.39
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op.21, No.1
Larry Barnes (b. 1950)
Toccata: Act of War (2002)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op.57 "Appassionata"